Prison camps for immigrant families
Some folks on the Frontera List today criticized my choice of words in calling out the Trump administration’s plan to violate the Flores settlement agreement and to hold families and children in long-term detention. See:
This move will definitely spur more investment and construction of long-term detention facilities–much of it already underway in the border region where I live. In a serious plug for Mark Dow’s excellent 2005 book, American Gulag, I advocate for the hashtag #Americangulag. I think it is reasonable to call these new and expanded immigration detention facilities internment camps, or even concentration camps.
A list member wrote in response:
“I think we need to come up with a new name as internment camp, concentration camp and gulag all invoke other history, motivation and circumstance. To me it needs to be something that encapsulates the fact that we’ve made migrants into a commodity for corporate profit. Also something that belies the fact that once profit is part of the equation the impetus to solve our border issues (whatever solve might mean) is diminished or removed entirely. Just like the border security industrial complex, once you create an economy, it becomes very hard to dismantle it.”
These are excellent points, but I am invoking the other history on purpose because I think the parallels are real. For one thing, the detention center complexes in the border region have been called “camps” for many years by both immigrants detained there, guards who work there, judges in immigration courts, and lawyers for immigrants and for the government. I have always thought it odd, but it is the custom. Conversations like: “Where is your client?” “At the camp…” Or, “I spent all day at the camp interviewing asylum seekers…” etc. I think the terms internment and/or concentration camps are more apt now than ever in light of this planned expansion of family detention.
Spanish-speaking detainees call the El Paso ICE facility el corralon / the corral.
The practice of long-term, indefinite detention for immigrants and refugees parallels in many ways what was done to Japanese Americans, to Jews, to Soviet citizens, and millions more people before, during and after WWII. Many camps in Europe also began with profit as a major driver, to take advantage of slave labor performed by the people imprisoned, before they were murdered. See this recent article on an artifact of that terrible history: https://www.thelocal.de/20170222/stolen-work-will-set-you-free-gate-returned-to-dachau The slogan, ARBEIT MACHT FREI, was suspended in iron over several work camps and death camps in Nazi-occupied Europe. See also the book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, by Andrea Pitzer.
I think that immigrant detention facilities (those in existence now, those under construction, and those being planned) are an important piece of the border security industrial complex and that’s another good term for this phenomenon. But the treatment of the people inside these immigration prisons comes from a long tradition of criminalization, isolation, and torment of “the other…”
I first visited immigrants and asylum seekers in an immigration prison in Oakdale, Louisiana back in 1986. It was a brand-new compound in a clearing in a Louisiana pine forest, surrounded by razor wire, and staffed mostly by working class family guys in one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest states. Many of the people there were refugees from civil wars in the poorest places in our hemisphere–wars designed and fucked up by the CIA. For much more on the story of Oakdale see: Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade, by Robert S. Kahn.
Louisiana is another place where the immigration detention industry keeps expanding, taking advantage of a bad economy, a rural population in need of jobs, and friendly politics for the private prison industry. See (for example) https://www.ice.gov/detention-facility/lasalle-ice-processing-center and https://www.splcenter.org/news/2018/08/09/splc-fights-back-against-trump-administrations-attack-immigrants
I now visit people detained in El Paso and Sierra Blanca, Texas and in Otero County, New Mexico in the course of helping with their asylum cases. It is not possible for me to be inside of these places without a profound sense of depression and awareness of the evil being committed in service to the state. While it may come across as sloganeering, these places exude the “banality of evil…”
Just one example: I visit a teenager from Guatemala in Otero. He is seeking asylum after surviving beatings and death threats in his rural community. He traveled alone for several months through Mexico, often sleeping on the ground by the side of the road. He only speaks his native indigenous language and has never been to school. He has been detained since the day he crossed the border at the end of December 2017. He has not been able to speak in person to anyone in his own language since that day. To the best of my knowledge, he has only been able to talk to one relative in the U.S. by telephone, and to one interpreter by telephone who was hired by the attorney who represents him. That is the only way we have of learning his story in order to prepare his case for asylum.
While the government is obligated to provide competent interpreters for court proceedings, they are not obligated to help in any other way in terms of legal assistance or interpretation. But so far, the government has not even managed to provide a competent court interpreter for this young man. Rather, they have provided interpreters who speak two different indigenous languages that this young man cannot speak or understand.
I have trouble imagining the level of isolation forced upon this young detainee. Two lawyers have petitioned for his release on bond or humanitarian parole so that he can travel to the place where his one relative in the U.S. lives. All requests for relief have been denied.
And this is only ONE of so many stories that could be told. For a first hand account of what it is like to be interned, see this from Emilio Gutierrez, the Mexican reporter who spent a total of 15 months in the El Paso ICE prison: https://www.cjr.org/first_person/reporter-detained-by-ice.php
I agree (in part) with the list member who pointed out in our email discussion that:
“We are dealing with a different context and I think that, like border security industrial complex, we need to draw connections AND demonstrate how this is a new manifestation. Since we are among the people who are creating these terms, I want something that isn’t easy to dismiss as rhetoric. I feel it’s one of those subtle but important manifestations of language that can work for or against an argument. In my retrospective view, the ‘no one is illegal’ slogan had/has a similar problem because the law and order segment of our society could dismiss it so easily and, more importantly, it doesn’t effectively address our collective culpability in the immigration situation or its history. I agree with the politics but I’m not sure it served our argument. I don’t know that I have a better term right now… Your point about the ‘banality of evil’ is not sloganeering at all. I think that’s the crux of the situation: How do we frame this in a way to compel understanding that what we are doing is inhumane, reprehensible, and irredeemable? Maybe there isn’t a better term, but it seems worth the effort to think about it.”
[I hope the list member will forgive me for quoting these words from our conversation. I really value them.]
I’m not sure there is a simple way to resolve this. Though the contexts are very different (from WWII internment/concentration camps to 21st century immigration prisons), the banality of evil underlies both systems. The current policies that persecute, isolate, criminalize, imprison, and deport immigrants and refugees become more normalized and entrenched, and thus, more evil. Likewise the border security industrial complex grows and generates greater profits for the owners of these corporations and systems.
And as I noted when I passed on the Washington Post article yesterday morning, such policy announcements divert attention from the insane and incompetent leader who commissioned these policies. The venality of power and greed in our country continues to expand and corrupt. Absolutely.
Molly Molloy, Las Cruces, NM, September 6, 2018